Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Børge Brende aren’t the only ones warning against any changes in Norway’s own agreement with the EU after the Brexit vote. Labour Party leader Johan Gahr Støre is worried about the same thing, and Norway’s national employers’ organization NHO doesn’t want to tinker with the country’s EU agreement either.
It’s not often that Solberg and Støre, or Støre and NHO agree, but Støre has joined both Solberg and NHO in rejecting proposals to initiate any changes in Norway’s agreement with the EU, called the EØS avtale and encompassing Iceland and Liechtenstein as well.
“I can’t see that it’s in Norway’s interests, or that Norway should be called upon to take any initiatives right now,” Støre said. “We must look after Norway’s interests and, in uneasy times, secure that Norwegian companies can enjoy predictability. We must not put an agreement that has given Norway 20 very good years into play.”
Støre was involved with negotiating Norway’s original EØS pact with the EU back in 1994, when he worked in the Labour government headed by former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. He notes that there are major differences in the interests and agendas of Norway and Great Britain, not least in the areas of fishing and agricultural policy.
While Norway’s farmers are mostly anti-EU and enjoy a large degree of tariff protection from competition in the current EØS avtale, for example, British farmers wanted to remain in the EU and can’t rely on the same level of British subsidy that Norwegian farmers get in Norway. Norway’s farmer-friendly Center Party nonetheless supported Britain’s Brexit vote as did Norway’s anti-EU lobby group Nei til EU, leaving both Solberg and Støre shaking their heads.
Skewing the balance
The current EØS avtale, Støre said, “has through the years been characterized by Norway’s and Iceland’s needs,” Støre said. “It is an agreement that not only covers agriculture and fishing but which has developed to include research, students and cooperation on foreign policy.” He warns that if Great Britain joins the EØS (European Economic Area cooperation) itself, it would skew the balance. The British, for example, “will be very keen on securing market access for their agricultural products,” and likely willing to be open to EU imports in return, while Norway exports few agricultural products of its own. Norway could wind up having to accept far more EU imports of everything from tomatoes to celery that would have to compete head-on with Norway’s much-higher priced tomatoes and celery. While consumers would arguably benefit from better selection and lower prices, Norway’s own agricultural industry could suffer badly.
It remains unclear why Norway’s anti-EU parties thus are open to the British joining the EØS, with Christian Democrats leader Knut Arild Hareide also urging Solberg’s government to invite the British into the EØS and perhaps striking a whole new EØS agreement. With Labour now joining the government in not thinking that’s a good idea, it’s unlikely to happen.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) suggested over the weekend that the Center Party and the Christian Democrats think Norway can gain a strong new ally with Great Britain outside the EU, and negotiate a more flexible agreement with the EU. Despite the current chaos and power vacuum in Great Britain, they welcome Britain back as a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
From senior to junior partner
Norway, however, would go from being the largest partner in the EØS to being dwarfed by Britain, which would have a different agenda because of Brexit supporters’ quest to limit immigration, limit Britain’s financial contribution to the EU and be liberated from EU regulations on the workplace and other perceived hindrances to productivity. Brexit supporters have also been sharp critics of the EU’s own agricultural subsidies and want more market-oriented solutions.
Little of that agenda is shared by Norway in terms of priorities. The EU is also unlikely to yield to British demands, for fear of making it attractive for more EU members to leave the union.
Støre thinks Norway, in short, has little to gain by involving itself with Britain’s own upcoming negotiations with the EU. NHO was the latest on Tuesday to share Solberg’s, Brende’s and Støre’s view.
“We warn strongly against renegotiating an agreement that is so enormously important for our country,” Tore Myhre, NHO’s director for international issues and EU policy, wrote on NHO’s own website. “It’s extremely worrisome that (Center Party leader) Trygve Slagsvold Vedum and (Socialist Left leader) Audun Lysbakken are dipping into rough waters, and playing on nationalistic and populist strings that are so destructive for finding answers to European and global challenges. In this case, even the EU skeptics must show some responsibility.”